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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Book Review: The Middle Path

June 1, 2008

The Dalai Lama's Buddhist beliefs may limit him as a Tibetan
political leader, says Pico Iyer in this new biography
Chandrahas Choudhury
The Wall Street Journal
May 31, 2008

The Open Road:
Pico Iyer
Penguine, 2008
252 pages, Rs499

The Open Road, Pico Iyer's new book about the Dalai Lama, is less a
biography than an extended profile. Although it gives us some sense
of the Dalai Lama's tumultuous life story, Iyer avoids the linear,
chronological form and quotidian details of biographical narrative.
He chooses, instead, to take advantage of his long association with,
and proximity to, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan
people (Iyer's father was a friend of the Dalai Lama's) to explore,
with considerable success, his public and private faces.

Indeed, Iyer is perhaps the ideal candidate for such a book, because
over the last three decades, both he and his subject have
distinguished themselves by their attention to the problems and
opportunities of globalism. The Dalai Lama has used his prolonged
exile to take Buddhism out into the world. He has promulgated a
system of "global ethics" that does not rest on a foundation of
religious belief or practice and allows the denizens of our shrinking
global village to cut across their differences. He has used the
support of influential thinkers and artists (Vaclav Havel, Bono,
Richard Gere) to popularize the cause of Tibet, and provided support
to Tibetan communities in exile the world over. Thanks to him, Iyer
writes, "Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism have become a living and
liberating part of the global neighbourhood."

In the same way, in his celebrated travel books, Iyer has explored
the question of how the change in humanity's horizons--newly extended
by television, cheap travel, and the Internet" have affected both
individual psychology and the exchanges between cultures. Even in The
Open Road, he remarks in passing that "restlessness has gone global,
and hopefulness, and the sense of an answer somewhere else," both
among the Westerners who arrive in Dharamsala and the local Tibetans,
who often seek a passage to America.

Elsewhere, he speaks of how, in the span of a generation, "the world
seemed to have moved from having too little information about itself
to having too much."

Iyer's book, then, explores the life of the Dalai Lama through the
prisms of the concerns that have preoccupied him: the close study of
Buddhist thought and practice, the management of the
government-in-exile in Dharamsala, the pressures of making Buddhist
teaching available in a simplified form for lay people the world
over, the negotiations on behalf of his suppressed and expectant people.

Iyer highlights the extent to which the 14th Dalai Lama, as the first
in his line to spend his life in exile, faces problems very different
from those faced by his predecessors, as notes the steps he has taken
to embrace new ideas and scientific knowledge. In one sense, the
Dalai Lama is a conservative, seeking to follow the path of the
Buddha and to explicate the teachings of the great Buddhist texts.
But he is also at the same time an innovator, happy to declare that
science renders some age-old conceptions untenable, and enthusiastic
about what Buddhist thought, with its emphasis on the mind and on
meditation, might have in common with modern cognitive science.
Following his subject around the world, Iyer studies his rhetorical
style, and observes how he speaks "in precise, rounded phrases, as if
offering the stones out of which he has built his thinking". In
contrast to other religious leaders, Iyer notes, the Dalai Lama
"seems to exult in meeting people from traditions other than his own."

But the fact remains that the Dalai Lama is not just a religious
leader, but also a political one. Although Iyer shows how he has
consciously elevated the level of political discourse, and emphasized
the ways in which all the citizens of the world are connected, the
feeling persists that the Dalai Lama has done a great deal for those
who could conceivably do without him, but not enough for those people
who need him the most: the Tibetan people who live in China-occupied
Tibet and suffer on a daily basis the brutality and condescension of
the Chinese government.

Iyer notes that the Dalai Lama takes as his political model the
figure of Gandhi, a man whose commitment to non-violence and to
peaceful resistance brought down a powerful empire. Just as Gandhi
opposed British dominion without demonizing the British people, so
the Dalai Lama has always emphasized forbearance and the need for
Tibetans to look within. But, as Patrick French pointed out recently
in The New York Times, "Gandhi took huge gambles, starting the Salt
March and starving himself nearly to death" a very different approach
from the Dalai Lama's 'middle way,' which concentrates on
non-violence rather than resistance." Iyer acknowledges that as the
years roll by and Tibet's situation remains unchanged, among Tibetans
"there is less and less hesitation about criticizing his Middle Way
policy and the government deputed to implement it."

Even though Iyer defends his subject from these charges, the picture
that emerges from his book is that of a man whose Buddhist beliefs
sometimes limit his options as a Tibetan political leader" a figure
who has succeeded as a globalist, but is struggling as a localist, in
the face of an adversary determined to malign and misrepresent him
and is impervious to moral and ethical scrutiny.

The Open Road closes on a cautiously optimistic note. Iyer observes
that no one knew at the beginning of 1989 that by the year-end the
Berlin Wall would have fallen, and the Cold War would come to an end,
and suggests that something similar may happen with China and Tibet.
It is to be hoped that this is so but, in the year of the Beijing
Olympics, and at a time when paeans to China's rising economic power
are being sung in many quarters, the immediate future of Tibet
appears to be a closed rather than an open road.

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